Chasing the Gavel

by Jeremy Alford

The drama surrounding the elections for House speaker and Senate president is more exciting than anything on the November ballot.

If you took Sen. Joe McPherson at his word just a few weeks ago, then you were probably under the impression that the gruff and mustachioed Democrat from rural Woodworth was positioned to be the next Senate president. It was, after all, quite a show. He assured reporters that his votes were already in the bag. He couldn't have been more wrong.

Last week, Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal all but endorsed Sen. Joel Chaisson II, a Democrat from Destrehan, for the top Senate job, and it immediately became clear that Chaisson would in fact win the contest. It may have seemed ironic that Jindal, who rode into office atop a GOP wave, embraced a Senate president from the opposing party. Then again, even before last Saturday's runoff elections, Democrats had a lock on a majority of the seats in the Senate. Jindal's nod to Chaisson thus reflected political reality more than a soft spot for the opposition.

Moreover, Jindal had promised voters he would stay out of the Legislature's in-house elections but changed course because it became apparent that his vow was overly idealistic. Jindal now realizes that getting involved in the elections for Senate president and House speaker may be his only means of guaranteeing that his legislative agenda will be handled with care. The leadership sets the agendas and controls the flow of bills in each legislative chamber.

When he "confirmed" Chaisson's candidacy last week, Jindal explained that he was merely voicing the choice of an overwhelming number of senators with whom he had spoken. In confessing as much, Jindal revealed that he had actually been involved in the race long before accompanying Chaisson to last week's press conference. He had been taking calls and meetings, seeking advice from lawmakers and, in all likelihood, figuring out how to get involved without actually looking involved.

In some ways, Chaisson was a practical choice for Jindal. Democrats are guaranteed a majority of the Senate seats, regardless of the outcomes of last Saturday's runoff elections. And, if there's a Kennedyesque archetype in the Legislature, it is arguably Chaisson. A young-looking 47, the St. Charles Parish lawmaker and trial lawyer is an eloquent speaker who can become impassioned during heated debates ' yet he knows how not to make enemies. He comes from a politically prominent River Parishes family and has long had the chops for statewide office. He could be a very valuable ally for Jindal.

On the other hand, Chaisson comes with baggage for an ultra-conservative like Jindal. For starters, he isn't afraid to step on toes if it benefits his constituency. When the New Orleans Saints pulled out of an agreement in 2003 to house their training camp at Nicholls State University, Chaisson tried to anchor them in Thibodaux legislatively ' as long as they played in the Superdome. A veto from former Gov. Mike Foster nixed the ploy, and Chaisson described the ordeal as "disgusting."

Chaisson also was one of the loudest and most persuasive opponents of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages in Louisiana. At the time, he explained that he personally opposed gay and lesbian unions, but he argued that the amendment was overreaching and sent a negative message of discrimination to the rest of the nation and the world. While Chaisson's reasoning may have been OK with voters in his district, who re-elected him this year without opposition, it likely didn't endear him to Christian Right voters who helped Jindal become governor.

Then there's Chaisson's support for gaming. Since 2004, he has sponsored no less than a half-dozen bills related to gaming or video poker, ranging from legislation that increased enforcement to others that benefited the industry. By comparison, Jindal has promised to oppose any effort to expand gaming. Chaisson now says he is on the same page as Jindal, though that doesn't mean he has turned against gaming interests. Rather, it more likely means that those who are already in the gambling biz don't want to let anybody else in ' which is hunky dory with the anti-gambling crowd, too.

Meanwhile, in the House, Jindal is staying above the fray. For now. Most media accounts have placed GOP Caucus Chair Jim Tucker of Terrytown ahead of the pack. For his part, Tucker says he would welcome Jindal's support but contends he doesn't necessarily need it. "We're still working toward it and have a majority of oral commitments," Tucker says.

Tucker's candidacy is also being framed as a conservative balance to having a Democrat lead the Senate. Tucker's competitors, however, are not backing down.

The top tier names mentioned for House speaker include Democratic Reps. Don Cazayoux of New Roads; Karen Carter of New Orleans; Jim Fannin of Jonesboro; and Rick Gallot of Ruston. Rep. Hunter Greene of Baton Rouge is the only other Republican jockeying for the House gavel.

"Ever since the Senate did their thing, everyone is moving at warp speed over here, and I'm thinking that everyone will have their minds made up over the next week or so," says one longtime member of the House. "As far as Tucker, don't believe the hype. There's still a long way to go."

Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst from Shreveport, says the same words of caution could be extended to Chaisson, although he is in better shape than Tucker heading into the Jan. 14 leadership elections, which will occur alongside Jindal's inauguration. "I think it's more difficult for Tucker now because there's increased attention on the governor-elect getting involved, and I think he will have to get involved," Stonecipher says. "But however and whenever he does, there will likely be some sort of pushback."

As of press time, Chaisson was the only sure thing going in the Legislature ' and he certainly knows what that entails. He has been a member of the Senate since 2000 and was a state representative for nine years before that. "My No. 1 objective will be to help this governor be a success and to help Louisiana turn things around and move in the right direction," Chaisson says. "We have a special session coming up in January, and it is extremely crucial that we pass some meaningful reforms and send a message to the nation that we are doing things a little differently."

This week, Chaisson says he will begin doling out committee assignments, although McPherson contends much of that task has already been accomplished, which is what gave Chaisson his lead in the Senate race. Already one appointment seems obvious: Chaisson will name Sen. Mike Michot of Lafayette, the GOP dean of the Upper Chamber, to chair the budget-reviewing Finance Committee.

"We're going to try to match people with their skills and talents," Chaisson says of the committee assignments. "I think people need to be put into positions where they know the subject matter and can help their districts the best. Most of all, we want to do it in a bipartisan fashion ' Republicans, Democrats, north, south, black, white. Everyone will be represented."

Chaisson supporters like Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat from Bourg who hopes to chair the Natural Resources Committee, says Chaisson has always been keen on unlikely alliances. Dupre predicts more odd-coupling if Chaisson wins the January election for Senate president. "I think Joel has already proven through his time in the Senate that he can build a consensus, and that will be his strongest asset as president," Dupre says. "I think you're going to see a completely different Senate."